Successful Together: 3 Keys for Stronger Brand & Agency Business Relationships

As an agency search consultant for almost two decades, I hear many complaints from marketers (and agencies) about their business partners. Note the nuance here… “partners” not “partnerships.” The reality is we are in the business of relationships and relationships, whether they’re good or bad, are based on the interaction between people.

I find myself often saying that clients select agencies based on business insights behind marketing issues and always end their agency partnerships based on relationship issues.  Those relationship issues fall into a litany of criticisms:

  • My team isn’t consistent and people keep coming and going.
  • They don’t include me in their initial strategic thinking and I can’t course-correct at the early stages.
  • They’re not as conscious or proactive as expected.
  • They don’t listen and act upon the feedback I’ve provided.
  • They think they know my brand better than I do.
  • I feel like I’m the only one truly worried about the business on a daily basis.

Notice that the complaints have nothing to do with marketing or communications expertise.  They’re all relationship issues. But relationships are hard and all partnerships have their challenges – whether they’re personal or business related. The fact is, people are people and there’s a lot at stake in all relationships.

On the other hand, I’ve also witnessed some case-study examples of thriving, successful client-agency relationships that have outlasted the industry average (which now hovers around 3+ years) by double and triple the tenure.

When Jerri DeVard was CMO of ADT from 2014-2016, she credited ADT’s 17-year relationship with Doner to commitment and unwavering support. “It’s like a marriage,” said Ms. DeVard. “You have to cherish the relationship and nourish it.”

So, what makes some client-agency relationships flourish into long-standing partnerships while others fall to pieces rapidly? Well, I don’t have all the answers but these three keys for strong business relationships, based on the counsel of a psychologist, Nick Wignall will certainly increase the tenure and tenderness of the client-agency partnership.

1. Give Feedback Assertively

Both parties must communicate effectively and express clearly when something needs to change. Don’t confuse assertiveness with aggressiveness. Instead, speak in an open manner that is honest to your needs but also respectful of others. Assertiveness has two basic parts that are essential skills for thriving relationships: Clearly ask for what you need and say no to what you don’t want.

Saying no is difficult and we often absorb more stress rather than set legitimate and effective guidelines by clarifying your rationale and your alternatives. Communicate in an honest and clear manner. For example, if an agency search requires your agency to produce spec creative, you may say something like this:

“I’m sorry but we have a policy of not producing speculative creative for agency pitch processes. The reason is simply that we believe the best work comes from working together as a team and in reality, we don’t go off on our own to produce creative and then present creative solutions to “sell” to you. Instead, we will be delighted to craft some strategic thinking around one of your core issues and bring some creative expressions to life by showing solutions to prior clients with very similar marketing challenges.”

2. Take Feedback Constructively

It’s easy to give criticism but can you take constructive criticism well? It’s a key ingredient in solid relationships. Instead of becoming defensive which is the typical reaction, when you listen carefully and take feedback constructively, you’re building trust in a relationship. And trust is vital for any relationship to thrive, let alone survive.

In order to take feedback constructively, there is a vital skill needed: reflective listening. This means that you periodically “reflect back” what the other person is saying to you and often word for word. Reflective listening shows that you are really paying attention and listening carefully, which is not only appreciated, but it also builds stronger relationships.

I recall being in a meeting many years ago with KB+P who was presenting a few creative ideas to the client. The client wasn’t satisfied with the ideas being presented. Instead of the creative director becoming defensive, he listened carefully and said, “Please give me a minute.” He left the meeting and was back very quickly with crumpled sheets of paper and proceeded to say, “I was listening very carefully and although I threw out these creative directions, I believe this is what you were expressing in your feedback.” And the creative director nailed it. The “crumbled directions” were exactly what the client wanted and more importantly, he proved that he could not only take constructive feedback, but that he could also listen well!

3. Create Processes to Apply Change

Even if you give feedback assertively and can take feedback constructively, neither will matter if you don’t have a reliable plan for implementing and following through with necessary changes.  Have a system for change, follow through with the revisions, and track them for overall progress. By creating regular “check-ins” about the state of the relationship, we ensure that we never veer too far from the agreed upon goals and expectations.

In fact, I recently visited an agency where they have desk space for their clients at their agency to allow them to work in the agency on a weekly basis. This allows the two teams to integrate, collaborate, and follow through and course correct quickly. And as an added bonus, the face-to-face time on a weekly basis strengthens the relationship and increases the chemistry between the two teams.

After all, the most successful client-agency relationships are those made up of a group of corporate friends who trust each other- which can only happen by implementing these three keys to building stronger relationships.

Lisa has been coaching marketers and agencies alike for the past 18 years as an AAR Partners’ search consultant.  If you would like to benefit from more new business insights, feedback, counsel, and potential new business opportunities don’t miss out on becoming an AAR Partners’ Premium Agency Member.  Learn more about the program by contacting us here

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Lisa Colantuono

Lisa Colantuono is the President of AAR Partners. An agency search consultant for over two decades, Lisa is also an avid writer. Lisa has contributed many articles in top industry trades such as Forbes, Huffington Post, Advertising Age, Adweek and HubSpot Blogs’ Agency Post. Recently, Lisa entered the world of publishing with her book, @AARLisa: New Biz in 140 characters (or Less), written for the on-the-go new business exec that needs cut-to-the-chase insights to nail new business wins again and again. Lisa is also part of the industry speaking circuit, presenting at national conferences including 4A’s Transformation Conference, AAF Admerica National Conference, BOLO, HOW Design Live, Mirren, and AdAge Small Agency Conference.